Personal Statement Tips

Personal statements can carry a lot of weight in the residency application process, so it’s important to make your statement as strong and specific as possible. Below is a series of tips to consider when drafting your statement. Some of the tips are universal maxims on effective writing, while others may or may not be germane to you. As with all things writing, knowing the difference is part of the game.

Embrace the process

Writing is a process, not a one-time performance, and everyone’s process is different. You have to take your statement through multiple drafts and let it develop. Give yourself time and the permission to write. You owe that to yourself after years of hard work. The key is discovering what your process is and that can only be achieved through trial and error. Some of you will be very comfortable with writing, while others will want to avoid this part of the application process like a rattlesnake in the weeds. No matter which description fits you, you need to start writing early to give yourself the best possible chance to craft an effective, compelling statement.

All the world’s a stage

It’s important that you consider your audience when you write your statement. Are you applying to a program that focuses on research? Clinical medicine? That should be in the back of your mind as you write, not so you can write what the reader wants to read, but instead so you can focus on your own experiences, your strengths and weaknesses and write a statement that it unique to you. You could also ask questions of people who read or have written statements for the specialty you’re entering to see if there are any dos or don’ts particular to your field.

Stay inside the lines

Your statement should be no longer than one page. If you think that’s too short, it’s not. You need to be ruthless in providing your reader a strong, succinct statement that not only gives a sense of the writer behind the words, but also a strong sense of how that writer is the best candidate for their position. This precision means no unnecessary words, no straying from the topic, nothing extraneous at all. That can only be achieved through writing early and giving yourself time to live with the piece and revise it over time.

Storm front on the horizon

Brainstorming can be a great way to generate ideas for your personal statement. If you find that you don’t know where or how to start, try brainstorming to get the wheels turning. There are many different techniques for brainstorming (and you can refresh yourself with a quick Internet search of the word “brainstorming”), but two techniques I’ve found helpful for personal statements are detailed below.

  • Write a chronology for yourself. Starting as far back as you care to, write a timeline of your life. Don’t just include work and school experience, but also other life events, big or small, that you feel contributed to who you are in some significant way. Try to include sensory details in your entries. Write down anything you can think of, whether it seems important or not. Write as much as you can. Don’t worry about whether or not you think you’ll use all the material. We’re on a sleuthing mission here. The personal statement relies on creating a clear picture of you in a small space. We need all the clues we can get to uncover the material necessary to paint that vivid picture.
  • Create a comparison chart. On a sheet of paper, make two columns. On one side, write down all the qualities and skills you feel are necessary to be successful in the specialty you’ve chosen. In the other column, write down both your strengths and weaknesses. When you’re done you should have a good sense of yourself in the position. The goal with both of these exercises is to create a narrative and generate support for your overall thesis: That you are the best possible candidate for the residency. You do this by both highlighting your strengths, but by also creating a clear picture of the individual behind the credentials.

Style points

While you want your statement to reflect your personality, you don’t want to confuse or otherwise turn off your reader. To that end, don’t make your statement so creative that it doesn’t do its job. Too much creativity could be confusing to a reader. Clarity is at a premium here. You may be a very creative person and if so, that will come through in the statement without overdoing it.

Subject matters

Unless it’s integral to your statement, it’s recommended that you stay away from potentially controversial topics like politics and religion. Don’t fall victim to the false consensus effect. Your views are near and dear to you, but your reader may not share them. Your reader wants to know you. Keep the focus there.

Physician, know thyself

Use your personal statement to be just that: Personal. Do your best, using the tips and techniques outlined here and elsewhere to paint a vivid picture of who you are, where you’ve come from and where you hope to go. There’s a little bit of salesmanship required to write an effective statement and it takes confidence and self awareness to be able to make that sale. You’ve worked hard to get to this point in your career. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and let people know who you are. It will pay off in the end.

Give them what they want

Wouldn't it be nice if residency programs told you what they want from your personal statement? Sad to say, most don't...but some programs do offer guidance on what should (or should not) be in your personal statement. Be sure to check with each program to see if they've offered any guidelines.